Tag: GPS

U.S. v. Jones: The Court’s Search for a Rationale

I attended the Supreme Court’s oral argument in U.S. v. Jones today, the case dealing with the Fourth Amendment constitutionality of using GPS to track individuals’ movements without a warrant. Predicting outcomes is fraught, and you’re getting your money’s worth from the following free observations.

It seemed to me that most members of the Court want to rule that the government does not have free reign to attach GPS devices to cars. Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Sotomayor, for example, noted the vast consequences if the government were to win the case. Law enforcement could attach tracking devices to people’s overcoats, for example, and monitor their movements throughout society without implicating the Fourth Amendment. Voluble as he often is, Justice Scalia did not say that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t reach GPS because GPS data wasn’t around for the Framers to insulate from government access.

Justice Alito’s thinking seemed to venture the furthest. He noted how insufficient it would be if the Court were to decide the case based on the narrow ground that attaching a GPS device to a car is an unreasonable seizure. Doing so would not account for the vast amount of personal data the government might access without attaching something to a car, clothing, or other property. If not in this case, the Court will soon have to face the (pernicious) third-party doctrine, which holds that a person has no Fourth Amendment interests in information shared with others.

If the Court desires to rule against the government, the one thing it lacks is a rationale for doing so. When it was time for Jones’s counsel to argue, the Justices seemed frustrated not to have a principle on which to base a decision.

Justice Scalia early-on declared his concern with GPS tracking and his dismay that the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test from Katz v. United States (1967) might shrink the zone of privacy the Framers sought to protect in the Fourth Amendment. But he later retreated into a sort of catch-all posture: the Congress can control GPS tracking if it wants. (Jones’s counsel cleverly suggested that there were 535 reasons not to do that.)

Other Justices’ questions danced awkwardly with the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test. Justice Kennedy was equivocal once about whether it would apply. Chief Justice Roberts seemed acutely aware of the Court’s incompetence to make judgments of such broad societal sweep. This is for good reason: there is no way to determine what society thinks, or what is “reasonable” in terms of privacy, when new technologies are applied new ways.

The solution to this conundrum can be found in the Cato Institute’s amicus brief in the Jones case. The Court should not use the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test from Justice Harlan’s Katz concurrence. Rather, it should follow the majority holding, which accorded Fourth Amendment protection to information that Katz had kept private using physical and legal arrangements. The government stands in the same shoes as the general public when it comes to private information—that is, information that can’t be accessed legally or with ordinary perception. When the government accesses information that was otherwise private, those searches and seizures must be reasonable and must almost always be based upon a warrant.

This way of administering the Fourth Amendment is not a snap of the fingers. There will be details to hash out when the Court eventually finds that having a Fourth Amendment interest in information turns on a factual question: whether someone has concealed information about him- or herself.

The biggest impediment to adoption of this rule may be getting lawyers to realize that “reasonable expectation of” is not a prefix required every time they use the word “privacy.”

Will GPS Tracking Render the Fourth Amendment Quaint?

If the government put a GPS monitor on your car and used it to track every vehicular movement of yours for four weeks, do you think that would violate your Fourth Amendment rights? The government would like to be able to do that kind of thing without getting a warrant, and the Supreme Court will soon decide whether it can.

On November 8th, the Court will hear oral argument in U.S. v. Jones. Yours truly was the lead author of Cato’s amicus brief in the case, which may have a significant effect on how Fourth Amendment law intersects with new information technologies for decades to come.

In 2004, suspecting that Antoine Jones was dealing drugs, the FBI secretly attached a GPS tracking device to his car without a valid warrant. The FBI used this device to monitor and record the car’s movements, noting its location every ten seconds when it was in motion, for nearly a month before finally arresting Jones. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the FBI’s action was unconstitutional because it violated Jones’s “reasonable expectation of privacy”—the two-part Fourth Amendment standard developed in the landmark case of Katz v. United States. Though he traveled on public roads, the totality of his movements was available to nobody and thus was private.

Our brief argues that the government’s conversion of Jones’s vehicle into a surveillance device was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Even though he didn’t lose a “possessory” interest in his car, the government invaded Jones’s various property rights, including the right to exclude, the right to manage, the right to use, and the right to the profits. Similarly, using his car to collect detailed data on his movements over this extended period without getting a warrant was an unreasonable search. The data reflecting his movements would never have come into existence without the government attaching its GPS device to his car. These are tough, interesting issues arising in the new circumstances created by information technology.

We spent as much time in the brief on the “reasonable expectations of privacy” test. The product of one Justice’s lone concurrence in the Katz case, it holds that if a person has an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy and that expectation is one society is prepared to accept, then the Fourth Amendment protects the object of that expectation.

Courts have never faithfully applied this test, and for good reason: it’s a doctrinal mess that reverses the Fourth Amendment’s focus. Courts have second-guessed what the citizenry thinks in terms of privacy rather than examining government action to see if it is reasonable. Under “reasonable expectations” doctrine, things that are left in plain view are always available to the government while things that are hidden—well, the Court will look to see whether keeping it private comports with “reasonable expectations.”

The majority ruling in Katz rested on physical and legal protection that Katz had given to the sound of his voice when he entered a telephone booth. Because Katz had secured the privacy of his conversation, the government wasn’t allowed to access it using a wiretap—not without a warrant. That’s the rule the Court should apply here. The government can’t use uncommon surveillance technology to access private information, including private information about things that happened “in public,” without a valid warrant.

With information technology still rapidly increasing in power, it is critically important that the Supreme Court update Fourth Amendment law while maintaining its consistency with ancient property principles. Doing so will ensure that technology doesn’t render the Fourth Amendment’s protections for our “persons, papers, houses, and effects” quaint.

You can read more, and our brief, on the Cato.org page about U.S. v. Jones.